Posts Tagged ‘petit grepon’

Petit Grepon: 14 Years Later

July 27, 2011

Me (right) and Mark (left) and Jim on the Sharkstooth summit in 1992, shown here instead of the 1993 Petit summit photo which has been lost to the ages.

Ah, The Petit.  It was the second rock climb I ever did in RMNP (07/04/1993), back when I lived in the Flatlands and dreamed for 12 months at a time for my next high peaks adventure. I climbed the Petit with my Chicagoland friends, Mark & Jim (summit photo lost to the Ages) after a high altitude bivy beneath the stars .  It was a scary, wonderful experience that weighed heavily on my decision three years later to move to Colorado.

I repeated that climb in 1997 as a part of a bargain with Brian who wanted to climb the Petit while I wanted to climb Northcutt-Carter.  We agreed to do both to further our mutual progress on the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

And, then, out of the blue, fourteen years later, Brian said, “I’ve been thinking about doing the Petit again.”  Hell, yes!  Why haven’t we been back?  It was a plan.

I remember back in the pre-internet days, route information was hard to come by.  But these days, the trick is sorting through the noise to find the information.  In this particular case, I had only to dig out my old trip report to confirm what I already knew….the key to climbing The Petit Grepon, 17 and 14 years ago was to arrive before the crowds show up to climb one of the most popular climbs in North America.

Early Bird Tenet: early starters get the best parking spots, the best trail and snow conditions, the most comfortable temperatures for exercising hard, the least lightning, and the highest success rates

~ CliffsNotes: Rules, Laws, etc.

A view of Petit Grepon and South Face (5.8) route. Taken after descent.

My old trip report indicated that we started hiking at 4am, which today meant leaving the house at 2:30am, and rolling out of bed at 1:45am. And then I remembered why we haven’t been back to the Petit in 14 years. Ugh.

Oh well.  The only thing worse than getting up at 1:45am to do a rock climb is getting up at 1:46am, committing to a 10 mile hike, waiting on the rock for hours for slow climbers to move, and then having to bail because of weather.  I set two alarms and then woke up 10 minutes early.  July 23rd, 2011 had begun.

We left Boulder right on time (for a change) and arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 4am to find a 1/3rd full lot.  As if we needed reminding, it was time to haul ass.  We pushed hard the entire way, passing 2 parties along the way to Sky Pond. To match my previous efforts (done in a 35-year old body), I had to put my full spinning-induced fitness to work.

As we neared the Petit Grepon in the early light, we could not see or hear anyone ahead of us.  Our ‘start early and hike fast’ plan worked again.  The old strategies are the best strategies, it is said.

1st Pitch (“Why Bother?”):

Brian approaching the top of the 4th pitch

Since the bottom part of the climb was wet, and not very interesting looking in any case, we decided to skip it and hike up the left side of the Petit to reach the ‘1st Terrace’ (a big grassy ledge at the bottom of the giant chimney).  It was rather easy route finding, but the climb was quasi-technical in my boots.  I’d call it hard 4th class.  But it was fast.  We reached the bottom of the giant chimney at a little before 6am.

That’s when we noticed the climbers already 2 pitches up.  Now that was an early start.   They were far enough ahead that we didn’t figure they’d factor into our day, and we were almost right.

2nd pitch (“The Giant Chimney”):

I took the giant chimney pitch so Brian would have the crux pitch without interrupting our pitch swapping.  The “chimney” was big, cavernous and chilly in the early morning, and the climbing was mostly dodging around chock stones or steep face moves on the left side.  It appeared dirty looking but the holds were solid and clean from frequent use. The pitch finished by passing the second of two large chock stones to the left, and setting a belay on top (approx. 150′).

The holds were so positive (5.6), in fact, that I was tempted into hauling legs rather than stepping up. It was a mistake possible to make on many of the pitches on the Petit, and one that would pay dividends for me later it the day.

3rd pitch (“The Bombing Range”):

Brian took the 3rd pitch, climbing up the left side of chimney and exiting the top of the chimney to the left (dodging the roof), into a steep hand crack (5.7). The crescent crack was offwidth-sized, but there was little need for crack technique.  Its jagged interior was  a source of fun holds to go with the foot edges on the wall to the left.  It soon turned into a steep but easy chimney which spit us out onto the second terrace.  Like most of the belay ledges, this one was shaped like a drain, designed to funnel plentiful loose rocks directly onto the pitch below.

I followed and made ready for leading the 4th pitch when a sharp whistling sound arrived an instant before a big rock (about 12 inches cubed) falling from far above hit like a bomb 15 feet from us.  It scared the crap out of us and spooked us with the reminder that random death was so close.

It is criminally negligent for climbers to knock down big rocks that would mean instant death (as Brian pointed out, “Helmets wouldn’t have helped with that rock”).  We’d have to be extra careful, until Beavis and Butthead were no longer overhead.

4th pitch (“The 2-Pin Belay”):

Brian at the top of the 5th pitch with Sky Pond far below

I took the 4th pitch, which started up into a roof-less chimney through which I could see the knife-edge summit ridge.  This had 20 feet of easy chimney, but then returned to STEEP.  Never hard, but a sustained face.   Near the top, the line angled right to reach a right-facing dihedral below the left edge of a shallow, sharp-edged roof. From the dihedral, I followed a short ramp to reach a belay below the right edge of the roof, where I found two pitons. The belay ledge was nothing more than a sloping ramp with room for one belayer, one itinerant climber and no guests.  But at least it was clean.

5th pitch (“The Crux”):

The crack overhead (5.9+) seemed obvious, but we followed common advice and 14-year old memories to the run-out right.  Slabby feet and hard-to-see finger edges took us right, then up and back over the belay to the first pro:  a flaring TCU hole and small stoppers.  Yuck, but only 5.6.

Better holds and a vertical finger crack brought us to the “v-slot” where another clean crack separated two smooth walls.  A couple crack moves later we pulled out of the slot onto flatter ground followed by the belay ledge.  This had the usual funnel-shape, and it would be the last of the grassy ones.

I had strong memories of the crux section…that might have been from my first climb 17 years earlier.  It was really the only thing I thought I remembered from either previous climb. But my memory was nothing like the climb, and the climbing was also harder than I remembered. Heck, I was grateful to not be leading it.  

When I crawled out onto the grassy ledge on the east side of the pinnacle, I was careful not to repeat the rock fall that the earlier team has produced.  This looked to be the source, with lots of loose rocks, small and large.

A view of the upper pitches (photo taken on descent)

6th pitch (The “Pizza Pan Belay”)

The 6th pitch was mine.  Once again I had zero memory of it. The route description said to go up and right and then go back left to reach the arête. So, I started up and right, following the easy ground.  After I passed below a large detached flake, I decided it was time to start back to the left.  I was torn between moving back over the flake or climbing the off-width crack formed by the right edge of the flake.  Even though the off-width crack looked dirty, it looked interesting plus I thought I could work back left after the flake.

It worked, although was a bit thinner I expected as I worked to reach a crack that led to a small ledge that extended to the arête.  I wasn’t sure that this was the ‘pizza pan’ belay at first but stopped because it was a good spot for a belay.  Later, I noticed the triangular ledge jutting out from the ridge (at my feet) that was approximately the area (but not the shape) of a large pizza, and finally noticed the piton above my head that I had failed to use in the belay anchor

Brian says:

We were now on the east side of the PG and would only occasionally visit the south face again, as it changed from a narrowing face into an overhanging arete.  Like most of the next 3 pitches, we had to wander through the wide east face following out-of-sight handholds and brief weaknesses, hoping to find the next belay ledge.  Joe’s lead seemed a bit far to the right, jamming the right edge of a huge detached flake before sliding over thinner face moves to attack the pizza pan belay hanging on the arête.  Restacking gear while dangling 800 feet over Sky Pond was a challenge.  Joe offered to surrender the big cam out of the anchor, but I preferred to have him in as solid as could be.  The cam also turned out to be holding 100 feet of rope stored in loops.

7th pitch (“The Sacrifice”)

The view of Pitch 7 from the 'Pizza Pan'

Back on the arête, the wide edges were gone, replaced by nubbins, hooky points, cracks and stems, all clean, solid and steep.  After 20 feet the route dodged left into a crystal-filled chimney that took us back onto the east face.

Brian took the 7th pitch which was supposed to be longest pitch on the route Brian noticed that the team below us was catching up and would soon be joining me at the Pizza Pan belay (where there was absolutely no room).  I think this factored into his thinking to shorten the pitch to 100′ when he arrived at the 1st good belay ledge.

The climbing was once again hard as the start felt like a 2nd crux, although now the problem was my hands were giving out after hours of leg hauling. Still, the position was spectacular:  almost 1000 feet of air below my feet, climbing along the knife-edge arete.

8th pitch (“The Knife Edge”)

This is the part everyone sees from Sky Pond and can’t believe that it’s the route.  When you’re on it, it’s too steep to plan your line, and there’s no major features to discern except up.  But the holds are all there, often thick edges, many times positive, sometimes requires deft sidepulls.  Pro gets a bit thin, and the route touches the arête near the top

A quick calculation confirmed that I could finish the climb on the 8th pitch; adding the 60′ of the normal 7th pitch to the standard 80-90′ of the 8th pitch meant I would have the longest pitch of the route.  I was delighted while also hopeful that my arms would hold out. Surely the climbing difficultly would ease, right?  No.

The pitch started with a 10-foot lay back finger crack that I took a few minutes to figure out.  When I finally committed to it, I counted on finding a hold to pull myself up to stand on top of a large (12″ square) platform but found nothing.  So, I was left with a balancy move that I regretted needing.

Joe enjoying a moment of satisfaction on the Petit summit

From there I moved straight up to a nice ledge below the ridge line (after it flatten out), which I figured was the normal 7th pitch belay.  I stepped up to continue directly to the ridge (as I thought proper) but paused to noticed that there was no pro or holds above me. Out of self-preservation, I decided to down climb a bit and then move right to find better ground.  This area was passable and led me to the ridge line which I followed to the always spectacular summit, which turned out to be the only thing on the entire climb that I remembered.  Oh, the ravages of age!

The summit (“The Teeny, Tiny Platform in the Sky”)

I brought Brian up and we once again marveled at the uniqueness of the Petit’s summit.  Over the years somewhere I misplaced my fear of heights; so this time the summit did not feel like it was about to fall over or that I might simply fall off.  But it is really something to experience every few years.

Brian on the 'far' end of the summit

It was approximately Noon, so we had taken 6 hours to do 8 pitches.  Not bad, but 6 hours is a long time in the high country without a drink of water.  We couldn’t stay long, and didn’t try.

The Descent (“Let’s Leave the Boots”)

A rappel descent is always a 2-edged sword:  little or no physical effort is always attractive, but the added risks of rappelling error, anchor failure and failure to find anchors makes for a bit of extra stress.  A 6-part rappel makes the problem larger by somewhere between 6 times and to the 6th power.

We made it and can recommend the rap route highly.  It was put together very well, but the necessarily twisting route means that the anchors are not simply below you.  We found it important to review the directions for finding each anchor just prior to each rappel.

The only problem we had was the infuriating tendency for the ropes to tie them selves into knots when tossed.  Fortunately, we noticed the knots before becoming stranded while dangling in mid-air, and we resorted to feeding the ropes over the edge.  The ropes didn’t often make it far down the wall, but they no longer became tangled.

Still, it took us 2 hours to descend the 6 rappels.  It was the longest continuous rappelling effort of my life.

We did pause briefly on the 1st Terrace to pack up & drink our water.  We had gone without water for 8 hours at that point.

There could be no delay in the consumption of water.

The rappel route from the summit of the Petit to the base...leave your hiking shoes and pack on the ground

We took our time getting out.  We started with a dash for a water fill-up and then ‘skied’ down a snow field to Sky Pond that we skirted to link-up with the hiking trail.  We took some photos, admired the beautiful rocks of the area, and eventually worked our way down long enough to allow the iodine pills to dissolve.  We stopped at 3pm below the waterfall marking the transition to the Loch Vale level to eat lunch and consume every drop of liquid we felt confident wouldn’t make us sick.

The hike out went easily for a change.  We reached Brian’s truck at 4pm for a 12 hour round trip….only 1 hour longer than our time 14-years earlier.

Brian gazes upon the Petit after acquiring more water

Thus ended another great day in Rocky Mountain National Park.  And, a big ‘Thanks‘ to Brian for contributing mightily to the story.

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2 Classic Climbs: Northcutt Carter & Petit Grepon

January 5, 2010

It was one of those things that gets into your head and you just have to do it.  When I first heard of it, I wanted to do all or at least a lot of the 50 climbs listed in the Fifty Classic Climbs Of North America (a climbing guidebook and history) written by Steve Roper & Alan Steck in 1979. Out of all the climbs in North America, the best 50; the ultimate tick list.  Since two of them were within my reach as a climber and nearby my house (in Boulder), I wanted to start as soon as possible.

The Colorado Climbs within “The Fifty”

  1. Hallett Peak, Northcutt-Carter Route III 5.7 [1956] (in RMNP; top of my list for a while)
  2. Petit Grepon, South Face III 5.8 [1961](in RMNP; had done once before)
  3. Longs Peak, The Diamond, D1, V 5.11 (in RMNP, but too hard; did “Casual Route” instead)
  4. Crestone Needle, Ellingwood Ledges III 5.7

Brian wasn’t crazy about the list (he is too anti-establishment to follow someone else’s list), but he did want to do the Petit Grepon and was willing to re-do Northcutt Carter; so, for next two weekends in 1997, we agreed to focus on 2 of the 50 classic climbs: Petit Grepon & Northcutt Carter.

Petit Grepon (August 30)

It probably wasn’t the smartest plan, to climb the most popular rock climb in RMNP on the busiest weekend of the year (labor day). I guess we just didn’t think of it in time to start the “classic” program earlier and couldn’t wait any longer with the changing season. And, the Petit climb is long enough (8 pitches = 5-8 hours, depending on difficulty and avg length of pitch) compared to the daylight hours before the probable rain (7am to somewhere between noon-2pm = 5-7 hours) such that we had to be first on the climb or expect to fail. [Note: learning to climb faster was another option, but it would take too long to get ready.]

Another complication was the planning for the descent.  The details we could find on returning to the base of the climb were too vague and included ugly descriptions of a “death gully”. So we agreed to escape over “The Gash” as I had done a few years earlier with my CMC rock climbing class, and descend down the Sharkstooth approach.  But, this meant we had to carry everything with us on the climb. It is never ideal to carry everything up the rock, but sometimes that is the best or only way to do it; the obvious key is to not bring too much.

The fact that we couldn’t get a bivy permit worked well with this detail.  We bring very little, start very early, and blast up the trail to be first on the rock.  In reality, we figured we’d be tip-toeing past the sleeping climbers to beat them to the rock. It was a great plan.

We hit the trail at 4am and got in line.  It was crowded like I had never seen it before in the pre-dawn hours.  We put it into high gear and passed everyone and got to the rock ahead first.  One group of sleepy climbers tried to pull themselves together quickly as we passed by, but it was too late; we were first on the rock. “I love it when a plan comes together.” (Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, A-Team)

Our path up the South Face route (III 5.8) of the Petit Grepon. We descended over "The Gash" which is directly behind the Petit Grepon, between the Sharkstooth and the Saber, from this vantage point.

To make sure we stayed in front, we skipped the initial pitch by scrambling up the west-side talus to reach a ledge which we used to traverse back to the South Face III 5.8 climb.

Still in a race to be first or at least not hold up anyone else, we quickly got ready for the next part of the day.  After putting on more clothing (we wouldn’t be burning calories like we did on the hike in) including rock shoes and harness, organizing the climbing gear & ropes, and eating a quick breakfast (a couple bits and a swig of water), we packed away everything else we brought into our small packs.

And, then, without another glance back at the climbers jostling for position, we started up.


  1. Traversed right to reach the giant chimney in the center of the face
  2. Exited the “cave” to the left and climbed to a large ledge below another, but smaller chimney
  3. Climbed the chimney, then traverse right to a belay below the right end of a roof
  4. Moved right and then climbed a steep crack, into a left-facing corner with a finger crack (crux), and continued up and right to a ledge on the east side of the Petit Grepon
  5. Climbed up, then right and then left to a small stance on the southeast arete.  I believe this spot is called the “Pizza Pan” belay
  6. Climbed a crack above the belay to a ledge, and then up the wall. Belayed on ridgeline
  7. Followed the ridge to the teeny tiny summit
  8. Enjoyed the spectacular views of the world from the sofa-sized summit while resisting an urge to lay flat on the rock

It was incredible; the summit was a 10×30 diving board offering lots of air time before the sudden end.  The summit was so small that I had to look at my feet when I stood upright to keep my balance; the ground was outside of my peripheral vision.  And the fear of falling off was somehow magnified by this phenomenon.  When I sat down, I thought I could feel the rock swaying, which brought on fears of the rock breaking off.  It was the coolest place I’ve ever been, and getting down right away felt important and promised to be interesting.

A profile view of the top 1/3rd of the Petit Grepon from behind. It is a really disconcerting sight that forces you to wonder if it might break off!

We looked around for rap anchors and found a good set on the back side (NE corner).  We then scrambled up a deep chimney to the north to reach the Sharkstooth side of “The Gash.”  From there we descended back down the Sharkstooth approach.  Once we reached the the Loch Vale lake, we found the crowds again; the trails were packed elbow to elbow; it was horrific.  Welcome to Labor Day weekend at RMNP.

But the weather stayed perfect the entire day:  clear skies, warm temperature, no wind, and after 11 hours, we made it back to the parking lot.  We got back so early that a Ranger questioned us intently to see if we had done an illegal bivy.  All we had to do was point at our tiny packs to prove we didn’t do so.

One classic down, and one to go.

Northcutt Carter (September 6)

Then it was time for my test-piece.  And I was scared for a number of reasons.  At the top of the list, the route was famous for route-finding disasters; a rating of 5.7 was only true if you could stay on route. Undoubtedly, the actual difficulty would be harder.  Another was that I had never climbed on Hallett Peak before; I just hadn’t worked up the courage yet. If I could overcome my fear and successfully climb Northcutt Carter, if I could pass the test, then I could call myself a real climber.  Well, that’s how it felt, anyway.

To combat the legendary route-finding difficulty, I studied my copy of Bernard Gillett’s High Peaks, 1st edition (the importance of this detail will become clear later) more carefully than ever before.  And, of course, I made a photocopy of the topo and route description to remind should I become confused.

Just as the week before, we were planning on climbing a very popular route.  And this time, the weather report promised bad weather in the afternoon.  We needed to get an early start and move fast to make it.  Yet, since the approach was far shorter, we slept in a bit; my alarm didn’t go off until 3am.

We hit the trail from the Bear Lake parking lot at just after 5am and took only 30 minutes to reach Emerald Lake.  It was still dark so we couldn’t see how far we had to go.  I thought we might have started too early, but we didn’t reach the bottom of Northcutt Carter until 6:45am.  And once again, we were the first to arrive; and we didn’t waste any time getting started by scrambling up the broken rock to the right of a break in the “white band” to reach the bottom of the climb.

Pitch 1

Brian took the first pitch, and climbed a corner for about 1/2 a rope before moving a bit left and climbing up a slabby rock.

Pitch 2

We were swapping pitches, so the 2nd pitch was mine.  I took out my topo for a quick refresher; Gillett said, “go straight up a crack, then move a bit right to the belay.” Unfortunately, the guide book was wrong!  Mr. Gillett was describing what Rossiter calls the “Faux Pas” route…a common mistake on Northcutt-Carter.  Of course, I didn’t know this until I later bought a copy of Rossiter’s book.

As directed by Gillett, I started straight up and then passed a roof.  It was pretty hard (turned out to be 5.8), so I figured I did something wrong; the pitch was only rated 5.4.

As I looked up I could see a couple pins with some gear left behind.  Booty!  I scrambled up to claim it without a thought to why someone would have bailed at that point.  And then it started to really get hard.  With the rock still a bit wet and the terrain now a bit overhanging, I was in trouble.

I kept making progress, but I was wearing out.  I found an unlikely leg jam that I could hang on with no hands.  That gave me a life-saving rest.

The rock was overlapping plates of rock like tiles on a roof…the pieces of rock were loose and the downward slope of the rock plates didn’t offer much to hold on to.  While I struggled to find the right piece of gear, one of the loops on Brian’s gearsling broke and sent the two large cams into oblivion.

Running out of gear and strength, I took to hanging on the pro to gather enough strength to make it another few feet.  But eventually I made it.

After Brian came up, we both were very confused about the route.  We couldn’t begin to think of how we got off-route.  But since the belay looked right, we decided to push on.

Pitch 3

Brian took the third pitch.  The rock all looked similar (the reason for the route-finding difficulties for many); following his nose, he took the original line of Northcutt-Carter, which was a bit to the left of the route we were trying to follow.  We had to simul-climb a bit so he could reach a good anchor.

Pitch 4

I had no idea where the route went.  I continued up the line until I got to a good belay stance in an alcove; the route didn’t seem to go anywhere from where I was; I hoped that Brian could find the route.

Pitch 5

Brian thought he knew where to go and traversed far right to link up with the route.  Once at the belay together, we both felt confident we had re-acquired the route.  This was the good news; the bad news was that the rain had started.

Pitch 6

I continued up toward a chimney and then climbed the chimney.  I saw a great belay spot and got to within 3 feet of it when I ran out of rope.  I had to jam my foot in a crack for balance while I struggled to find a place for one of the last pieces of gear remaining.  I then clipped a long sling to that questionable piece of gear and lowered myself to a sloping ledge where I could find a good placement for my last cam.

My anchor contained 1 good cam, a questionable tricam & my ass on a ledge; I wasn’t happy, but I was out of options.  I gave the rope 3 tugs and hoped Brian wouldn’t fall on the slippery rocks.  I sat in the rain wondering how we would get out with our lives.

Brian didn’t fall.

Pitch 7

Brian slowly crept up the wet rock while I froze in a freezing rain.  By the time he reached the top, I was a stiff, wet fool.  But since Brian was at the top, we were going to make it…I could just fall up the rest of the way.  Retaining a bit of pride, I managed to reach the top without resorting to falling.  And once I started to thaw out, my fingers hurt like the devil was eating them.


The descent gully was very hard to find.  Brian had been in it once the year before but I had never been on Hallett’s north face.  We eventually found something awful that Brian was certain was the right gully, and we started down.  I didn’t believe we were in the right place until climbers descending above us nearly killed us in a rock fall. Eventually we reached the bottom and spent 40 minutes fruitlessly looking for the fallen gear.

After a fruitless search we gave up and hiked out to go eat.  We reached the car at 7pm for a 14 hour day, and then went into Estes Park for a Mexican Food celebration.  I felt that I had accomplished something important, but that was the end of my obsession with the Classic 50; just too many great things to do close to home.  And, while 2 of 50 isn’t really a great accomplishment; not finishing the list at all seems to be rather common.  According to Wikipedia, no one has ever done all 50; perhaps everyone has too many good things to do nearby home.

That was also the end of my use of Gillett’s guidebook; I’ve used Rossiter’s book ever since.  I’ve heard that Gillett fixed that mistake in his 2nd edition, but I wouldn’t know for sure as I never bought it; some mistakes are simply unforgivable.

It is worth noting that it was good that we got Northcutt-Carter done when we did.  A few years later (I believe 1999), the bottom 2 pitches fell off the face into a pile of rubble at the base of the climb.  Northcutt-Carter was dead.

Hallett Peak with "dead" Northcutt-Carter route indicated

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